Area Man Finds Hilarity, Insights In The Onion’s Methods, Madness

The Onion's Baratunde Thurston

Most Creative People in Business 2011

Every Monday, editors at satirical newspaper The Onion collect between 700 to 1,000 headlines from contributing writers around the globe in search of stories to fill its pages. A committee of editors then whittles the headlines down to roughly 100, and from there, the brainstorming sessions begin to fill out the hilarious paragraphs that will sit below those headlines.

“It’s a headline-driven business,” says Baratunde Thurston, digital director at The Onion–indeed, some of the paper’s best headlines are as eye-catching and smart as they are hilarious and potentially viral: “Wikipedia Celebrates 750 Years of American Independence,” read one from a few years back.

Thurston was speaking at Fast Company‘s Most Creative People in Business event (he’s No. 49 on our list), where he touched on everything from the absurdity of legitimate news to Onion stories from 1783 (“Benjamin Franklin’s Inventions This Week” include math and the U.S. patent, which Franklin in turn patented). But outside the laughter, Thurston’s discussion offered some valuable insight into the creative process at The Onion, and what it can mean for organizations not practicing comedy.

Case in point: The Onion‘s grueling pitching and story selection process. Reducing hundreds if not thousands of headlines, as Thurston explained, is not easy. “Half of the ideas we throw away are great,” he said. “They just don’t fit.” It’s a “collaborative brainstorming process,” where a “trusted group of very smart and talented people” argue their case for a headline’s inclusion. Oftentimes, that means “throwing away most of the ideas.” Other considerations: “Has anyone done it before? The elimination process initially hinges on a search for originality, and then substance after that,” Thurston says.


That’s a similar process to what many startups must go through. Popular photo-sharing app Instagram, for example, faced like hurdles. When the app first launched, it was called Burbn, which founder Kevin Sytrom now refers to as a “science experiment.” It was a way to test “just about everything to figure out what stuck.” For Systrom, that meant cutting away the app’s myriad (and cluttered) features: check-ins, posting photos and videos, adding Like buttons, and including game mechanics. In other words, Systrom threw away most of his ideas, and kept what worked: photo-sharing. Twitter, arguably, went through a similar experience when it transitioned from ODEO’s focus, and Facebook too when it cut out services like Wirehog and Beacon.

To get to that point, however, takes more than a serendipitous spurt of creativity.

The Onion is not just run on inspiration,” says Thurston, “it’s run on consensus.”


[Image: Clark Jones]

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About the author

Austin Carr writes about design and technology for Fast Company magazine.